Last week, a girlfriend asked me where tea comes from, and I thought, wouldn’t we all like to know? To be specific, in this post we are talking about tea that comes from the camellia sinensis plant, native to…..can you guess?
Tea Is Native to Southeast Asia
Kiss your brain if you knew that tea originally grew wild in China, and other Southeastern Asian countries with subtropical and tropical transitional forests, such as border regions of North West Laos, Southern China, East Burma, North Thailand, and Northeastern India (i.e., Assam region) [Source: Topic Tea]. Note that it was China who first cultivated and produced tea for mass consumption, keeping the product a national trade secret from the West until the 19th century, when European colonialists and traders sank to industrial espionage to steal tea production secrets and materials, launching competing operations outside of China.
[PAUSE: TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE DIFFICULT TRUTHS OF HISTORY]
I think it is important in our current conversations to insist on regarding the entirety of our history, including our wrongdoings. When we consider how tea came to be second only to water in worldwide consumption, and how we adore the loveliness of our tea and afternoon tea rituals, we cannot overlook the dark parts of its history: the deeds, motives and suffering of the Opium Wars. Just as British high society began serving its first afternoon teas, Chinese civilians were facing the first of two Opium Wars, arguably caused by the high demand in Great Britain for Chinese tea. After more thorough research, I will add these events to our Tea Story timeline.
Japan 2nd to Produce Tea
On a peaceful note, Zen priests and Buddhist monks were the first importers of tea plants and seeds from China to Japan, who began producing tea in the 6th century. Today, 99% of the tea Japan produces is green tea, including renowned varieties like Sencha and matcha.
Top Tea Producing Countries Today
Check out this color-coded map with 2018 tea production data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which highlights the countries that produced 50 tonnes or more of tea annually. If you’ve already viewed the “History of Tea” video above, you won’t be surprised to see that several formally colonized countries, for example, of the British Empire, today grow large amounts of tea. Roll your mouse around on the map below and see if this map holds any surprises for you.
Top 10 Countries for Tea Production
To delve deeper into the tea varieties, check out our “Choose Your Tea” guide to navigating a tea menu. Here are the top 10 tea producers based on the latest data we found (2018), and the teas each is known for:
- China – black, green, oolong, pu-erh teas; the birthplace of tea; renowned for Yunnan, Silver Needle, Lapsang Souchong, Keemum teas made in specific provinces
- India – black, green teas; Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiri black teas take their names from the Indian regions in which they are grown; chai (sweetened, spiced, steeped with milk) is a popular tea preparation in Indian homes
- Kenya – black, green, white, oolong, purple teas; supplies 50% of UK tea consumption
- Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) – Ceylon black and white teas; uses the contour method, planting tea bushes to follow the contours of the earth
- Turkey – Turkish black tea, Rize tea named for the region that produces it; #1 in per capita tea consumption worldwide
- Vietnam – black, green, jasmine teas
- Indonesia – black, green teas
- Iran – black teas grown without pesticides
- Myanmar (formerly Burma) – Taiwan-style oolong, black, green teas; pickled tea leaves are eaten here
- Japan – green teas, matcha (powdered green tea), top-selling Sencha green tea
American Tea, Is That A Thing?
Once you see the terrain and climates in which tea is typically grown, it’s not very shocking that tea estates haven’t sprung up all across the United States. However, there are tea farmers finding success in the U.S., including one grower in Georgia (Dunaway Tea in Newnan). If you’re interested in buying USA-grown teas, you can find them for sale online and locally by visiting our American-Grown Tea write-up.